This week, I’m ‘rambling’ about something a little different. For the past six months I have been working in retail, more specifically in a local supermarket, and for someone like me who has both a degree and PhD in Neuroscience, this was less than ideal. Between December 2014 and May 2016 I applied for hundreds of jobs and I attended 15 interviews, a soul-crushing experience, before I was finally offered a part-time position back in science. Living in the South-East of England is ridiculously expensive my wife and one salary was insufficient for my wife and I to make ends meet so during this period, I went to work in my local store to help us out financially. The job was your standard retail opportunity; boring and physical and tedious but my point is this: between the last time I worked in retail (during my undergraduate degree) and now, it is obvious that conditions have deteriorated by a significant amount and I was not at all surprised to see the news reports of horrendous conditions inside Sports Direct (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jun/07/sports-direct-agrees-back-pay-deal-with-hmrc-minimum-wage). Actually, I think the conditions that I worked in were not that bad but, given the downwards trend, they are likely to worsen.
So, the job was hard and physical and poorly paid, though actually a little better than minimum wage (or even Osborne’s derisory ‘living wage’ which is no such thing). I was already of the mindset that the minimum wage should now be £10 an hour and working here only reinforced that idea. I spent 7.5 hours each day on my feet, carrying heavy boxes, filling shelves and pulling around carts. I came home exhausted and I lost a considerable amount of weight during this time. I also gained a some muscle, an up-side, and increased my stamina which has helped me in my new job to cope with the travel to and from London. Yet I was only working 3-4 days a week and I find it hard to imagine how exhausted those who worked full-time must’ve been. Yet with the recent shift to part-time workers, full-time contracts are now much rarer and very few of my colleagues had this. Part-time contracts come with fewer benefits and paid days off and instead they offer you over-time to make up the difference if you need it. Fortunately, I did not.
It was immediately obvious that, since my last stint in retail, that conditions have considerably worsened and that the balance of power has squarely shifted in favour of the employer and the management. It used to be that if you worked a nine hour shift you earned three breaks: an unpaid one hour lunch break and two paid 15 minute breaks. These 15 minute breaks are now no longer paid. Additionally, workers lost the right to paid sick days, unless you are out of work for more than three days. I was unwell three times during my six months working there and each time I was genuinely sick. On two of these occasions I had to leave the store and come home to bed. I understand that a sizable portion of their work force is comprised of teenaged workers who are hard to motivate and who would abuse a system that allows them to get paid for days when they can claim they are sick (more often hung-over). But for me and those who needed the job and took it seriously, it was an insult. For anyone with a family who require days to care for them, it is truly horrendous. I also had to sit through a hilarious meeting with two managers to check that I was ‘OK’ and that they didn’t need to discipline me for my (insignificant) absences. Hmm.
My time in this job also made me wonder how these workers manage to make ends meet. With the crazy-high levels of rent required to get even a small apartment in the south-east of the country and all of the other expenses that life incurs like paying your energy bills, feeding your family, owning and running a car, and so forth, I wonder how they do it. And now that they lose pay due to genuine sickness this only adds to their problems. Tax credits and other assistance that a family can claim obviously help, but the current Tory government is doing what it can to take that money away from those who actually do work and genuinely need the support. All in the name of getting the ‘lazy English workers’ back to work.
Despite my grumblings, it wasn’t all bad. One of the things that I did enjoy during my time in the store was the people that I worked with. Most of them were warm, friendly people who were genuinely interested in getting to know me. Of course, there were also some arseholes (including a manager whose name I won’t mention) and some colleagues who went out of their way to be petty and pathetic but knowing that I hopefully wouldn’t be in this environment for the long-run certainly helped me to deal with matters like that. I genuinely enjoyed seeing my co-workers on a daily basis, chatting to them and since leaving I am missing their company. I’m also aware that my current position is only part-time and temporary (it is maternity leave cover) and so there is the possibility that I may end up back in a supermaket in the near future. God I hope not!
I was fortunate to have a way out of this situation and the day that I was offered my new job was a joyful one indeed. But for many of my former co-workers, this is it, this is their life. Short-term, unstable contracts that are poorly paid, do not provide sick pay, and where the next group of incoming workers are offered worse conditions than the current ones. With the impending EU referendum, and the promise from those on the Leave side to have a ‘bonfire of regulations’ should Britain vote to leave, I worry for their future. I’m concerned that, in addition to unpaid sick days, that our government may choose to scrap the right to paid holiday days, a definite upside to working in a position like this one, and that conditions will further deteriorate. Yet, without the return of strong unions, something that seems unlikely at this current time, I do not see matters improving anytime soon. I wonder at what point this government will decide they have taken enough from the poorest in our society and that these people need support, not punishment. Then I remember that it’s a Tory government and my heart sinks. Bring on the next general election and hopefully, a change. Retail workers really need it.
My debut novel, ‘Only an atheist can help God save the world’, is available now from all electronic retailers. Also check out my other “Rambling” blogs posts for articles on being an indie author, comics, politics, and reviews of books and movies! Also follow me on Twitter @onlyanatheist1. Cheers!